December 13, 2020

1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
Psalm 126

“A Letter of Joy”

During this Season of Advent, I’m focussing my preaching on the Epistle readings in the Revised Common Lectionary. I’m looking for messages of encouragement to us in the midst of the ongoing Covid-19 Pandemic. And on this third Sunday of Advent, I’m looking for the gift of joy that comes to us in Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Epistle for today comes from Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonian congregation around the year 50 CE. The passage is from the last chapter, as Paul draws his letter to a close with some final instructions.

At first, the section may seem like a rather random bunch of aphorisms that Paul didn’t want to forget to include before he finished the letter: “Rejoice always… Do not quench the Spirit… Abstain from every form of evil.” And it may make us wonder why it’s one of the readings during this special season of the year.

Matt Gaventa, commenting on the passage puts it this way: “Few, if any, among the listeners who wander in on the Third Sunday of Advent will find in this disjointed list something that feels ‘Christmas-y’.”

Scholars who read the text in the original Greek language have noticed that the list isn’t quite as random as it sounds in English. Each of the Greek aphorisms begins with the same P-consonant. So, it’s possible that the section may be a fragment of a prior oral tradition or it may be Paul’s own composition, intended to be easily remembered, memorized, and incorporated into community life.

The alliteration would have bound together these final important summarizing instructions. More like: “Rejoice always! Respond to the Spirit! Reject evil!”

But how are these instructions encouraging for us today? What difference do they make as we prepare to celebrate Christmas in a global pandemic?

The Thessalonians weren’t experiencing a pandemic, but their lives weren’t exactly easy either. Earlier sections of the letter hint at anxieties that were present in the congregation: about boundaries between church and society; about the fate of the dead; about the timing of the second coming.

Into this anxiety, Paul calls for a disposition of constancy: rejoicing ALWAYS. Giving thanks IN ALL CIRCUMSTANCES. And it raises the question: Can we also do that? Can we also rejoice in the midst of our present pandemic circumstances?

While today’s Epistle simply ‘instructs’ the Thessalonians to rejoice, our reading from the prophet Isaiah this morning suggests one way to enter into that experience of joy, even in the midst of very difficult circumstances. And that method is the act of remembering past times of gladness and giving thanks for the goodness of God.

Like the People of Israel when they were enduring the exile in Babylon and remembering their homeland, we can remember pre-Covid times when our mouths too were filled with laughter and our tongues with shouts of joy.

Remember? It was 11 months ago that we celebrated our congregation’s 95th anniversary. We all gathered together at the front of the church for a big group picture… kids down in the front, and people packed together across the front of the church, up the steps, and across the chancel. Then we went down to the gym where we enjoyed a wonderful meal, and presentations, and songs, and dances. I remember the smiles and hugs, the laughter, and the spirit of celebration and joy.

My Facebook memories also reminded me this week that it was one year ago that the youth and kids of First Church gathered for a great bowling party. I smiled as I looked at the pictures… remembering how we crowded together, shared pizza, touched the same bowling balls, and hardly sanitized our hands at all!

And if we each think for a moment, we’ll remember other times of joy and gladness – in the life of the church, in our families, together with friends, and in the wider community. Weddings, the birth of children, graduations, family get-togethers, community celebrations like the Canada 150 New Year’s Eve parties, football games, concerts, and so much more.

But like the Israelites in exile, we’ve been mostly isolated in our homes with our household bubbles for almost nine months now. The pandemic rages on, with alarming numbers of new cases in Regina this week, and tragic deaths occurring, especially in some of our long-term care facilities. Our joyful gatherings and events have been cancelled or postponed multiple times, and it seems like so long ago that we experienced those times of unbridled joy.

But even after decades, even generations, in exile, God’s People Israel were encouraged by the prophet known as 3rd Isaiah to look for and to expect joy to come again.

The chapter we read this morning emerged from the period of Persian rule, just after King Cyrus defeated the Babylonians and allowed the Judean exiles to return to their homeland, but before they rebuilt their temple.

In a way, it seems fitting to compare it to this moment in our lives. Health Canada is beginning to approve vaccines, and the first batches are on their way here. We have a glimpse of hope and possibility that this pandemic can be beaten, but we’re not there yet and we still need to hang on for a while.

The prophet proclaimed the good news to the people that God was bringing them home and returning them to their normal lives. To those who were still mourning and sad, he said “You’re going to get a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning.” God’s goodness and faithfulness will accomplish this. And even before they see it completed, the people are called to rejoice.

Even in the midst of their ongoing struggle to re-settle the land and to rebuild the temple, their mouths are filled with laughter and their tongues with shouts of joy. Remembering God’s goodness in the past, and looking forward to the promised goodness that is to come.

While we continue to abide by the pandemic restrictions and keep our Christmas plans simple and safe, we also must look forward with hope, trusting that God will get us through this, and we will experience the fullness of joy once again.

“Rejoice always! Respond to the Spirit! Reject evil!” Those were Paul’s three final instructions to the Thessalonian Church. So, we’ve covered the reminder to rejoice even when things are not yet great.

But Paul also assures the Thessalonians (and us) that the Holy Spirit is still alive and active among them, guiding their teachers and leaders and prophets. The Spirit is still moving among us, and even if we’re not free to do all the things we used to do pre-Covid, we are nonetheless (and perhaps more than ever) called to respond to the Spirit’s prompting and equipping for mission and ministry.

Of course, the Thessalonians are reminded to evaluate what they think they hear the Spirit saying, making sure that it is consistent with the goodness and love they have come to know in Jesus Christ. But they should expect the Spirit to guide the community into new ways of living, serving, and sharing God’s love in the world.

Paul exhibits confidence in this congregation’s ability to do something good and true as they await Christ’s coming. Actually, he tells them that God will work through them for something good and true. “The one who calls you is faithful,” Paul assures them, “and God will do this.”

The same is true for our congregation of First Church in Regina and for each of our Christian communities. Even as the Covid-19 pandemic continues, with God’s help we have continued to worship, to care for one another, and to enact God’s love for others.

Yes, we’ve continued to worship – moving online and sharing sermons through the mail – and we’ve welcomed others to join us from beyond our congregation, beyond our city, and beyond our province as well. We’ve honoured our commitment to praise God Sunday by Sunday, and been encouraged by God’s Word of love in Jesus Christ.

We’ve cared for each other through prayer, phone calls, Zoom gatherings, cards, and care packages. We’ve continued to give our gifts for the ministry and mission of the church here in Regina, as well as through gifts to Presbyterians Sharing and Presbyterian World Service & Development. And in this special season we are making “In Memoriam” gifts that will support the Indigenous Christian Fellowship and our Refugee Sponsorship Fund.

Paul was immensely proud of the Thessalonian congregation’s faith and faithfulness in the midst of persecution, danger, and many causes for anxiety. And I am similarly proud of you and your witness, service, and generosity.

“Rejoice always! Respond to the Spirit! Reject evil!”

Paul isn’t specific about what evil things the Thessalonians must reject, but I expect they knew what were the temptations and selfish tendencies that they needed to continually set aside in favour of love and compassion. And I am sure that we know the evil that we must reject in our context today.

I’m thinking of the anger and frustration at the current situation that we sometimes take out on the people closest to us, becoming impatient and treating our own loved ones poorly because we’re so tired of being cooped up in our homes.

I’m thinking of the strong desire to engage once again that leads some to break the rules and do things that put people at risk – gathering, partying, travelling to see friends, or even holding church services without distancing and masking and proper precautions.

I’m thinking of the instincts for self-preservation that lead us to choose our own well-being over that of the most vulnerable people in our communities and world. These inclinations cause us to put Canada’s needs over the needs of other countries, to put our province’s needs over that of others that are struggling more, to put the needs of the general population over that of vulnerable groups like the elderly or Indigenous communities.

These are some of the evils that we must continue to reject, especially as they creep into our own hearts after such a long time of waiting.

During this very different Season of Advent and Christmas, we have the opportunity to remember God’s goodness to us and praise God for the gift of joy in the past. We can look forward with hope and expectation that God will bring us joy and gladness again. The Holy Spirit is here and active, and prompting us to new opportunities to be God’s love present in the world, as we choose compassion and care and reject every form of evil.

And so, as we continue to endure the challenges of the ongoing pandemic, may we Rejoice Always; Respond to the Spirit; and Reject Evil. And may God bless and keep us until the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.